When I was a lad, (how often have we heard that phrase from our elders and betters), my heroes were not those of my peers.
My mates spoke in hushed tones of Tommy Lawton, Nat Lofthouse, Johnny Haynes and, of course, the incomparable Stan Matthews. Not that I disliked sport you understand. I was watching our little nine inch television one magical Saturday afternoon when an eighteen year old Fred Trueman tore the Indian touring side to shreds in a devastating opening spell. I’ve been an avid follower of cricket ever since.
No. I’m talking about real heroes. Where my friends had pictures of the great footballers on their bedroom walls – I had my collection of shrapnel in a drawer. Cannon shell cases from German aircraft, a twisted shred of doodlebug fuselage, misshapen fragments of anti aircraft shell, and best of all a few precious spent 303 bullets from a Spitfire or Hurricane.
My heroes were Johnny Johnson, Bob Doe, Robert Stanford-Tuck, Roland Beaumont and Cats Eyes Cunningham.
The last was a famous night fighter ace – scourge of German bomber crews marauding over our beloved England under cover of darkness. My Mum used to tell me that Cats Eyes owed his extraordinary night vision to the carrots that he ate by the handful. Wishing to be like him I, of course, ate my carrots. In my imagination Cats Eyes spurned a radio operator. On the seat beside him sat a bag of carrots – whenever he felt that his magical eyesight was losing its edge he would dip into it.
My heroes were, without exception, modest men. When questioned about their heroic deeds, they would tend to look downwards and claim that anyone in their position would have done the same.
By the age of three and a bit, I had studied the aircraft identification chart which was published periodically by all good newspapers (the Daily Mirror). Therefore, I could tell a 109 from a Spitfire and a Focke Wulf 190 from a Tempest. Not only, might I add, by their appearance, but also from the sound of their engines.
I had seen a doodlebug pursued by a Spitfire (which I think was losing the race) and I had heard the loudest silence in the world when the motor of another one stopped. At that point I was snatched up by my mother and unceremoniously bundled under the kitchen table until we heard a dull crump some distance away.
No, I didn’t want to score a hat trick in the cup final, I wanted to fly a Spitfire.
Of course, by the time that I was old enough to join the RAF not only was the Spitfire long retired, but by economic necessity I had to go and work in the real world. But my fascination with those glorious pilots and my reverence for their exploits never diminished.
When my heroic career dreams had long been laid to rest, in the last few years leading up to retirement I worked behind the bar in a local pub. There I met a man in his early seventies who had achieved my boyhood ambition of joining the RAF. His name was Alan and he was what our American cousins would have called ‘a line-shooter.’
Like me, he had grown up to hero worship the wartime RAF pilots and, almost inevitably, wanted to be a Spitfire pilot. Unlike me, his parents could afford to keep him at school long enough to gain the qualifications necessary to secure him a place in the RAF. Of course, by the time that he was old enough to become a pilot, the magnificent Spitfires were long gone, and he flew a Lightning Fighter.
According to him, he had trained initially as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber, and switched to fighters at a later date.
I knew that this was most unlikely to be true. For one thing, I had seen the rear gun turret of a Lancaster, and Alan was about fifty percent too large to fit into it. Secondly, one did not skate between Bomber and Fighter Command. Once you were in bombers, there you stayed.
I didn’t really mind him fantasising about various aspects of his service life. I just thought it a bit sad that he felt the need – that was all. To be absolutely honest, I didn’t like him that much.
One lunch time when the rush was over, Alan told me this story.
When he was ten years old he went to Maidstone Grammar School. The following year was 1940, that magnificent summer when the young lads of RAF Fighter Command fought the Luftwaffe to a standstill over the green fields of Kent. That series of engagements, the most glorious page in our decidedly spotty history, afterwards became known as the Battle of Britain.
The school in those days was set on the edge of the town in fields bordering Mote Park. One afternoon, shortly after the autumn term started, young Alan and his friend were far more interested in craning their necks to watch the activity in the sky than in paying attention to their lessons. Indeed, who wouldn’t have been?
Anyway, just before afternoon break they spotted a Hurricane fighter circling the fields a couple of hundred yards from the school.
As soon as they could escape, they hopped over the school boundary, and sprinted in the direction that they had seen the plane. To their unbounded joy, they discovered that the fighter had landed in a field and the pilot had taxied his aircraft under the overhanging branches of a nearby oak tree. When the boys arrived he was leaning against the tail of his Hurricane, smoking a cigarette, whilst keeping an eye on the aerial activity.
Grinning at his adoring audience, he explained that he had been forced to drop out of the battle going on above because his engine was overheating. The lads helpfully pointed out that Detling airfield was only about a mile away to the west and West Malling a couple of miles in the other direction. He said that the ground crews were far too busy for him to bother them, and about twenty minutes would be sufficient for his motor to cool down.
Having stubbed out his second cigarette, he clambered into his cockpit and started the Merlin engine. Taxiing round to face down the length of the field he opened up the motor and took off. The two boys, who had completely lost sight of the fact that their break was long over, waved frantically as he climbed away. The pilot waggled his wings briefly at the watching boys and flew off.
As you can imagine, Alan and his friend were full of the close encounter with their heroic fighter pilot.
These were exciting times and between lessons in the air raid shelters, the boys were watching history being made before their very eyes.
Two days later, they could hardly believe their luck when a Hurricane started circling the same spot, this time just before school finished for the day. The lads hurtled over to the field and there was their pilot, smoking his cigarette and grinning at them. They were so glad to see him that they forgot to ask him why he was back again.
The twosome plied him with questions about how many 109s he had shot down and what it was like to see ‘the whites of the Hun’s eyes.’
This time he stayed long enough to smoke three cigarettes, lighting each one from the stub of the last. Alan’s friend afterwards recalled that he had difficulty in lighting them, because his hands were shaking. Before he left Alan made the observation that the fighter’s gun ports were still covered by tape.
“I’ve had no luck yet today,” confided their friend.
After he took off and retracted his wheels, the boys’ excitement was complete when the pilot fired a short burst on his guns before disappearing. They never saw him again.
I was completely captivated by this little snapshot of life in a period of history which had fascinated me for as long as I could remember. None-the-less, there were a couple of questions burning a hole in my mind that simply wouldn’t let me alone.
The next time that Alan came into the pub, I took him back to our conversation about ‘his’ fighter pilot.
“Assuming that his story of the overheating engine was true, as it just might have been, why didn’t he land at one of the nearby airfields, where they could probably have given him a replacement aircraft?” I asked.
Alan stayed quiet.
“And why did he land at the same place again? In all my readings of contemporary literature, the Merlin was not prone to overheating.
And why did he fire his guns when he took off the second time?
Could it have been so that he could report that he had been in combat?”
Alan looked at me for what seemed like a long time.
“They were all heroes you know – every one of them.”
At that moment I almost liked him.